Monday, February 22, 2010

Crises Deepening Pakistan's Class Divisions?

During my visit to Pakistan last year, I saw first hand and wrote a post on this blog about how the upper and middle class urban Pakistanis are coping with growing crises of education, electricity, gas, water, and security. For example, I talked about a friend who is doing well selling small power generators and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) for homes in Karachi. I also saw significant proliferation of private security companies, private schools, private water delivery businesses, and private clubs. Instead of helping improve the situation for all of their fellow citizens, it was clear that the Pakistani elite are retreating into their own bubbles to isolate themselves from the terrible effects of deteriorating governance in their land. This growing class divide is enhancing opportunities for Taliban and other insurgents to exploits class rifts in Pakistan.

Now I am sharing with you an interesting take on the situation in the following guest post by a Lahore-based freelance writer Mr. Zaair Hussain:

A Pakistani comedian once remarked that the country’s elite were cloistering into ever-smaller bubbles. Like all good humor, the comment provoked reflection long after laughter had faded.

To recognize our bubble is to recognize how we view those outside; from within those curved lenses, all without is distorted and alien. Even the best-meaning of us will crush the laborer in with the farmer, the beggar with the shopkeeper, the postman with the servant. We affix upon “the masses” a homogeneous mask, stripping them of their humanity. So ingrained is this habit, writing around that phrase was a painstaking task.

We dismiss them and they, for their part, resent us. They see us born into bubbles that rise effortlessly, for that is the nature of bubbles, and begrudge our sneering misconception that we rise because of some inner greatness. If you, sir or madam, were on the ground looking skywards, would you not pray with wicked delight for a sharp, terrible pop?

How has this schism become so advanced that the well-heeled have become aliens in their own land, by their own hand?

There are many culprits, but few so guilty as language.

The language of power and the language of the people are profoundly divided, just as when greater India was the jewel in the colonial crown. Pakistan has no monopoly on class divides and inequality. But in, say, England, the reduced and the royal alike hear the same speeches, can read the same poets, can engage in the same ideas. Closer to home, Iran and Bangladesh can boast the same.

Our schools, conversely, have failed us in language. No one poor in English, or poor in Urdu, has been greatly improved. The indigenous literature that was once the fierce pride of mailmen and mayors alike has evaporated to a curiosity, a hobby of the eccentric. We have lost Ghalib, and we never truly had Shakespeare. The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

I do not cast aspersion upon English; its versatility is unmatched, its literature rich. But we have unwisely decided to medicate our colonial hangover with a perverse mixture of an inferiority and superiority complex. Both are unfounded.

We have come to imagine that someone not educated in ‘proper’ English medium schools (like Dr Abdus Salam) is a prima facie simpleton.

The prime symptom is our obsession with the ‘correct’ accent. Woe unto those whose inflections are imperfect; their qualities will be lost to this pettiest of failings. When people launch into vicious mockery at a self-made actress’s pronunciation of “photographer” or “eyes”, they are spearheading a grotesque defense against what they see as a crack in their bubble.

The plummeting standards of local universities have deepened the divide; elite parents have pulled their progeny from Pakistani higher education institutions with all the deliberate subtlety of an 18th century dentist. Where once we were likely to remember the less privileged as our talented classmates, they are now absent from our worldview, labourers outside the glass divide, shadows without substance. In the halls of ideas, we have bid our adieus.

The state must shoulder a goodly share of the blame for our alienation. When we were snatched into darkness, we bought our own light. When we were left parched, we opened our wallets to private water that sprung up like costly oases in the desert. Left in fear, we hired and armed our own security. If the roads crack and fail, we will buy All-Terrain Vehicles. If legal justice fails us, we too will turn to the jirgas that spring up in every void left by the law like mushrooms in the dark places of the world. Things fall apart. And what then? A thousand, a hundred thousand self-important and insignificant micro-states will burst from the corpse of the old, and our alienation will be complete and irrevocable.

In our fear and frustration, we have created a false Eden and set before it an angel with a golden sword. Our homes, our offices, restaurants and retreats, clubs and celebrations. We protect these with a frenzied passion, and the password is always money. Great energy is expended jostling inwards, deeper into the bubble, until the world proper disappears from our senses altogether. We shuttle ourselves to and fro in smaller bubbles, our windows rolled all the way up. We live in a man-made chrysalis (chrysos = from gold) in which butterflies are formed, but never emerge. The center cannot hold. This, the third and final line I purloin from Yeats’ masterpiece ‘The Second Coming’ applies here save for this: we barely have a center to speak of, merely two peripheries in accelerating retreat, connected only by a rickety bridge creaking ominously in the wind. Soon that frail structure shall sigh its last and the two groups, needing each other desperately, will be left exchanging suspicious glances across a pitiless void.

But we are not yet beyond hope. The spiritual muscle that unites us in camaraderie has grown weak, but is not yet vestigial. When the ground opened beneath our feet in 2005 and hell itself seemed poised to break what it had not already swallowed, the men and women of Pakistan came forth in an effort that must have moved the most cynical of hearts. With their sinews and wallets, however great or small, they came to the aid of their countrymen.

Is it the reason we so cherish our cricket victories? When we cheer as one nation, we are for a fleeting moment linked to the mass of humanity that we otherwise reject, ignore or exclude.

It is not charity I advocate. Our compassion is ours to give or withhold. What everyone is entitled to is kinship, our acknowledgment that we and they are cut from the same mysterious cloth. Without kinship, wealthy and impoverished alike are beggared.

At the least, let us lobby for our sports, our arts, our culture (whether traditional pottery or desi rock). All persons, whatever else they lack, have souls that can swell and fall in unison. That which grew weary in isolation can revive itself in commonality, in knowing the full, true scope of experience that lies just beyond reach.

Let us refuse to accept that our best schools are incapable of teaching us our own language; they have taught us so much, so well. They must teach us how to speak so we can be heard, write so we can be read.

Let us tear away some morsels to fund our universities. We deserve it. Not we, the elite, but we, the people. We deserve to engage intellectually with the best our country has to offer. Let us feud and bicker our college years away, attacking ideas rather than accents, and come away enriched.

Let us sit on the patio of caf├ęs and watch the world go by. Walk when we can and be jostled and irritated and marvel at the textures of life we too often handle with gloves that are velvet on the inside and iron on the outside. Demand and embrace parks and libraries and other public places until we become, once more, members of the public.

Only when our bubbles seem less like palaces and more like prisons shall we escape them.

Zaair Hussain is a Lahore-based freelance writer. He can be reached at

Related Links:

Eleven Days in Karachi

Jinnah's Pakistan Booms Amidst Doom and Gloom

Incompetence Worse Than Corruption

Creative Financing of Pakistan's Energy Projects

Pakistan's Energy Crisis

Light Candles, Do Not Curse Darkness

Taliban Exploiting Class Rifts in Pakistan

Water Scarcity in Pakistan

Salman Ahmed Rocks Silicon Valley

Life Goes On in Pakistan

Pakistan's Higher Education Reform


Vikram said...

Thank You for sharing. It is just as, if not more true for India.

Anonymous said...

i think india has two different type of problem. One is the political class and another is the middle class. Neo rich class is trying to grow irrespective of the problems and concerns of the downtroden. Same is the attitude of the greedy politicans who is growing the wealth like a cancer.

In between these two is the middle class which is trying to grow by education, job outside by small business.

However the concept of giving back to the society is not existing between the neo rich and the politicians as they growing at the cost of the common poor people.

whatever the middle class could do that is being done by them but not sufficient enough for the population and help required.

Roland said...

An Op Ed by Nizamuddin Nizamani in Daily Times asks if we are "Heading towards revolt or disaster?"

The Op Ed conjures up the image of the French Revolution, adding that "Marie Antoinette, might have been surprised, or probably even shocked had she lived and seen our oligarchy, feudal and industrial lords."

Salman said...


One thing missing in this Daily Times article by Nizamani is what elites of our society appear to be totally ignorant of and so far ignorance has proved to be a real blessing.For how long...anybody's guess.

There was not only looting of bakeries and grocery stores,the poor and hungry masses started killing and looting the rich and elites.The police,as low paid and as corrupt as we see in Pakistan,joined these mobs and as such there was no protection available for these elites whose own maids/servants/slaves loved to join the crowds attacking their rich masters who they felt were spending in a day which they could not earn in a year.They facilated the angry mobs to find easy access to the hidden wealth in the palace like houses.
Even those with red cheeks and fresh skins were not spared.......that was the french revolution.
Pakistan is lucky that all chowkidars ,security guards, drivers,maids,aayas,Bawarchis,Massees,Malees,servants,peons..... do not read history books and Daily Times,otherwise world would have seen the Pakistani french revolution much earlier.
I dont give my uitlity bills to my driver for paying at the bank,my chidren are not allowed to get pizza by free delivery at home for payment through chowkidar,but they are not stupid.They know all what we spend and what they earn.It is just a question of time when without learning about french revolution,they can produce a replica........only a miracle can save it and I keep praying for the miracle.So far so good.

Riaz Haq said...

The French Revolution was not led by the poor French peasants or "chowkidars, security guards, drivers,maids,aayas,Bawarchis,Massees,Malees,servants,peons.." Instead, the ideology, the leadership and the resources came from the petty bourgeoisie who were from the urban middle class, dominated by the shopkeepers and self-employed types. They were not the have-nots, they were the have-less, relative to the feudal elite favored by the monarchs.

Unless Pakistan's urban middle class leads such a revolution, it will not succeed. The poor, rural Taliban will probably be crushed by the Pakistani military, acting in support of the narrow elite of the feudal politicians and the military brass that has ruled Pakistan since its inception. The Maoists in India, led by the left-wing intellectuals with many urban sympathizers, have a greater chance of success in India than the poor, rural Pakistani Taliban or other Islamic radicals in Pakistan, whose stupid tactics in Swat, and suicide bombings in Pak cities have destroyed whatever sympathies they had in the cities.

Riaz Haq said...

Here are some excepts of Nehru University's Prof Jayanti Ghosh's video interview on Real News Network in which she says there is "no Indian miracle":

JAY: So in India you're saying there never was major reforms and it's getting worse.

GHOSH: Absolutely. If you look at the pattern of Indian growth, it's really more like a Latin American story. We are now this big success story of globalization, but it's a peculiar success story, because it's really one which has been dependent on foreign—you know, we don't run trade surpluses. We don't even run current account surpluses, even though a lot of our workers go abroad to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, to California, as IT workers. We still don't really run current account surpluses. So we've been getting capital inflow because we are discovered as this hot destination. You know, we are on Euromoney covers. We are seen as this place to go. Some of our top businessmen are the richest men in the world. They hit the Fortune top-ten index. All of that kind of thing. This capital inflow comes in, it makes our stock market rise, it allows for new urban services to develop, and it generates this feel-good segment of the Indian economy. Banks have been lending more to this upper group, the top 10 percent of the population, let's say. It's a small part of the population, but it's a lot of people, it's about 110 million people, which is a pretty large market for most places. So that has fuelled this growth, because otherwise you cannot explain how we've had 8 to 10 percent growth now for a decade. Real wages are falling, nutrition indicators are down there with sub-Saharan Africa, a whole range of basic human development is still abysmal, and per capita incomes in the countryside are not growing at all.

JAY: So I guess part of that's part of the secret of what's happening in India is that the middle, upper-middle class, in proportion to the population of India, is relatively small, but it's still so big compared to most other countries—you were saying 100, 150 million people living in this, benefiting from the expansion. And it's a lot bigger. It's like—what is it? Ten, fifteen Canadas. So it's a very vibrant market. But you're saying most of the people in India aren't seeing the benefits.

GHOSH: Well, in fact it's worse than that. It's not just that they're not seeing the benefits. It's not that they're excluded from this. They are part of this process. They are integrated into the process. And, in fact, this is a growth process that relies on keeping their incomes lower, in fact, in terms of extracting more surplus from them. Let me just give you a few examples. You know, everybody talks about the software industry and how competitive we are. And it's true. It's this shiny, modern sector, you know, a bit like California in the middle of sub-Saharan Africa. But when you look at it, it's not just that our software engineers achieve, it's that the entire supporting establishment is very cheap. The whole system which allows them to be more competitive is one where you are relying on very low-paid assistants, drivers, cooks, cleaners. You know, the whole support establishment is below subsistence wage, practically, and it's that which effectively subsidizes this very modern industry.

Riaz Haq said...

Talking about healthcare in India, hunger haunts the poor patients even in the hospitals. And sickness drives them deeper into debt and poverty.

Here's a recent report on it:

NEW DELHI, Jan 3, 2010 (IPS) - As a nurse, Amita Dhaka sees much suffering, but what she finds hard to handle is inadequate nutrition and even hunger among poor in-patients.

At the busy, charitable hospital run by the Rural Medicare Society (RMS) at Mehrauli, on the outskirts of the national capital, where Dhaka is employed, there are provisions for poorer patients. But this is not the case with most state-run or private medical facilities, where patients are left to their own devices when it comes to procuring prescribed medicines or getting their meals.

"The problem is that attendants also require meals, and we see that very often they end up being an additional burden on the pockets of patients admitted in hospital," said Dhaka.

According to Dr. Aarti Vasisht, one of 28 doctors and surgeons working at the RMS hospital, providing patients with timely, balanced and nutritious meals is important because it has a direct bearing on recovery.

The chest specialist added that many of her patients are being treated for tuberculosis and are on heavy medications. "These are people who need to be on special diets and must be provided timely, nutritious meals," she said.

Vasisht has been able to arrange free meals for her patients at the RMS hospital from the charitable Santhigiri Ashram, which has a mission of providing free or subsidised food and medical care for the needy.

"We hope to expand these services and reach other hospitals in the national capital, but this is not easy in a time of recession when the prices of food items have gone through the roof," said Swami Pranavsuddhan, director of the Santhigiri Ashram. "The good thing though is that this is a cause that people seem interested in supporting, and New Delhi is a city of wealthy people who believe that feeding the poor and needy can add positively to their karma."

"These free meals go a long way for patients who may have to spend 300 rupees (6.4 US dollars) or more for each day of hospitalisation, which is an enormous burden for people living below the poverty line, earning less than two dollars a day,’’ Vasisht said.

"In India’s healthcare delivery system it is hard enough to get affordable medicines to most patients, and so the question of ensuring that they eat well is glossed over although everybody is aware of the problem,’’ she said.

The latest review of the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), released last week, speaks of continuing difficulties in providing free drugs to patients and "the imperative of prescribing medicines from outside," when the government is committed to raising public spending on health from 0.9 percent of gross domestic product to two to three percent of GDP.

In sharp contrast to the services at the RMS centre are the swish hospitals dotting the capital that cater to the health needs of the well-to-do and to a burgeoning medical tourism industry that attracts 450,000 foreign patients each year.

Hospitals such as the ‘Indraprastha Apollo,’ which ranks among the world’s biggest private health facilities, do not allow attendants and provide patients with meals prepared under the careful supervision of dieticians.

The NRHM, which runs from 2005 to 2012, was set up after the government recognised that curative services favour the rich and that for every dollar spent on the poorest 20 percent of the population, three dollars are spent on the richest quintile.

The NRHM also acknowledges that over 40 percent of hospitalised Indians borrow heavily or sell assets to cover medical expenses and that over 25 percent of hospitalised Indians fall below the poverty line because of hospital expenses.

Riaz Haq said...

Here is Soutik Biswas of the BBC on India's vast bureaucracy:

Like the UK and other countries, India hires it civil service recruits through competitive examinations. But its bureaucrats also face being moved around much more frequently than elsewhere. At least half of those working for the Indian Administrative Service - the country's fabled "steel frame" - spend less than a year in a single position, studies have found.

They can also end up working for India's vast number of state-run factories, hotels and airlines without much experience. So an official administering a small north-eastern state ends up running an ailing airline or a senior policeman can head up a liquor company. Most state-run companies - Air India is a good example - are poorly run, critics say, and perpetually in the red.

Bureaucrats are also hobbled by interference as politicians promote, demote or transfer them at will. There is corruption among a section of officers. Few alternate between state and federal governments, leading to accusations of provincialism in the ranks. More worryingly, some officers are perceived as champions of their religious or caste-based communities and act as "protectors" of their group's interests.

India has a range of forward-looking policies but a poor record on implementing them - for which many say bureaucrats must take a major share of the blame.

It's not as if those in charge are blind to the need for civil service reform: I have counted nearly three dozen reports and committees set up by the government since 1947 to streamline and modernise the bureaucracy. "There is growing concern that our civil services and administration in general have become wooden, inflexible, self-perpetuating and inward-looking," said one government paper.

The question is why does a bureaucracy which does a fine job in some areas - rehabilitating tsunami victims, managing millions at religious festivals, conducting the world's biggest elections - struggle to conduct day-to-day affairs of the state smoothly?

The answer may be simple. India's bureaucrats need to be insulated from political influence, observers say. They deserve transparent appointments and promotions and fixed tenures. The civil service needs a code of ethics. But most important, as one analyst says, is the need to develop a "climate of probity in public life".

Many of these observations apply to Pakistani bureaucracy as well.